Is anyone listening
— yet another open letter to the leaders of the Uniting Church
Recently the South Australian Moderator sent out a pastoral letter headed ‘The Uniting
Church—a safe place for all people’. Other Moderators are perhaps doing likewise.
However, it seems that the Moderator and other Uniting Church leaders simply do not
understand the implications of the Assembly proposals on marriage for
reformed/evangelical ministers and members who hold to a biblical doctrine of marriage. If they did understand they would know that, with the adoption of these proposals, not only would the Uniting Church not be a 'safe place' for
reformed/evangelical members and ministers, but it would be a totally unviable place for them to be. Please allow me to explain why this is so.
1. The proposals include a statement on what marriage ‘is’ within the Uniting Church (i.e.
if the proposals are passed). This statement would become part of the UC marriage
liturgy, which would require that anyone licenced under the Marriage Act to conduct
marriages ‘according to the rites of the Uniting Church in Australia’ would have to state
to the wedding congregation that
‘For Christians, marriage is the freely given consent and commitment in
public and before God of two people to live together for life.’
Speaking for myself, I would rather die than say that to a wedding congregation,
because the above genderless definition of marriage screams against everything Jesus
said about marriage and, therefore everything I believe about it.
“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’
‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.
What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Mark 10:6-9 (ESV)
What then could ministers with a strong biblical definition do? Is it viable for them to
decline to take any weddings, since they cannot, in good conscience, use the prescribed
liturgy of ‘the rites of the Uniting Church’? Should reformed/evangelical congregations
prevent, in their buildings, any weddings being conducted ‘according to the (proposed)
rites of the Uniting Church’. And should they only allow weddings conducted by non-
Uniting celebrants according to the rites of other orthodox denominations? Is this a
safe place to be?
2. While the proposals allow that a UC marriage celebrant ‘may exercise freedom of
conscience with regards to accepting requests to celebrate marriages, including same-gender marriages’, such celebrants would be legally vulnerable if taken to an equal-opportunity tribunal by an aggrieved same-gender couple. Given that Australian law
and Uniting Church doctrine and liturgy both state that marriage is between two
persons regardless of gender, the position of such ministers and congregations would
be precarious. Definitely not a safe place to be!
3. Furthermore, the proposals’ freedom of conscience clause for celebrants and
congregations would certainly be temporary, and, with the passage of time, would be
removed. One of the requirements of leadership and ministry in the Uniting Church is
that leaders and ministers be willing and able to minister to all people across the
diversity of the Church. It would be a very short time indeed before applicants for
ministry would be asked, “Are you willing and able to minister to same-gender couples
and to marry them? In the unlikely event of a reformed/evangelical person wanting to
candidate for ministry in this future Uniting Church they would surely be regarded as
unsuitable. Not a safe place for to be!
4. The proposals on marriage, together with the theological method behind them and the controlling way in which the marriage question has been handled, all signal to Uniting members that their Church is in the hands of powerful planners and controllers who have even more changes to unveil in the future. “For” as Jesus said, “if they do these
things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31, ESV).
Surely not a safe place to be!
5. The proposals make no mention of seeking the concurrence of the other councils of the Church, as is required for a matter that is so vital to the Church. From past experience, in the Assembly in 2003, and in our own Synod in 2017, we know that seeking concurrence would be strongly resisted within the Assembly meeting (Trust me; I tried it in 2003). Not a safe place to be!
6. In the past, congregations of the Uniting Church who have reached a point where they
are no longer able to live with where the Uniting Church is heading and have sought to
leave have found the UCA quite unwilling to allow them to have their own church
property. Reportedly, one such congregation here in South Australia has been told
quite recently by the Synod that if the congregation leaves the Uniting Church their
church building will be put on the open market and sold to the highest bidder.
Definitely not a safe place to be!
7. Likewise, any attempt by a group of congregations to remain ‘Uniting Church’ but live
apart from the Assembly and its unbiblical theology would, no doubt, be fiercely, and
probably legally resisted. Certainly not a safe place to be!
Given the above realities, the Moderator’s appeal to us to just be quiet and love one
another shows either a lack of understanding of the situation we would be in if these
proposals were passed, or a strong protective bias towards the proposals. We know how
zealous UC leaders are to provide a safe place for those on the other side of this debate,
and how swift they are to silence anyone who says anything that may possibly be ‘hurtful’ to them. But reformed/evangelical ministers and congregations stand, ultimately to lose everything in their Uniting Church home.
Leaders of the Uniting Church, I am sure you can understand from the above that the
Moderator’s assurance that ‘we do have helpful policies that can guide and protect us’ is
unconvincing to us and therefore totally unreassuring. We have been reminded that ‘there are many important matters for discussion at the 15th Assembly in addition to marriage’. Please forgive us if we are finding it difficult to think about these other matters, because we may not be able to be here in the future Uniting Church.
In January I wrote an open letter to the leaders of the Uniting Church expressing my
concerns that changing the Church’s doctrine of marriage would mean the end of the
Uniting Church as we know it. None of the leaders to whom I sent that letter have engaged with me and challenged those concerns. Having just read the Synod’s social media policy, our leaders may choose, this time, to just shoot the messenger and ignore the message. But here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.
Yours in Christ
Rod James May 2018